“Being the first amongst our siblings and friends to have children, my hubby and I were clueless about the state of the local education system today. Our knowledge of the system is guided by our own carefree experiences in Primary school.
We enrolled our kids in my husband’s alma mater as it was near our home ― expecting the teachers to prepare them adequately for the national exams. Our eldest daughter was doing fine in her studies from Primary 1 to Primary 4, getting average grades. But we had a rude shock when she failed almost all her subjects at the end of P5 and her form teacher called to find out what was going on.
The teacher was stunned that I didn’t buy any additional guidebooks, assessment books or 10 Year Series for my daughter. Nor did I hire any tutors as I was completely reliant on the teacher to do the job. It was through that conversation that I learned that as parents, we were supposed to do our part.
As a parent, I don’t believe in pre-emptive tuition — giving your child tuition even when she doesn’t need it — because it robs our children of the opportunity to first try on their own. It also makes them over-reliant on tuition — some kids can’t even survive in JC without tuition! By not giving them tuition in a country where it is the norm, the message I’m sending to my children is that I believe in your capabilities and I believe in you.
“I don’t believe in pre-emptive tuition — giving your child tuition even when she doesn’t need it — because it robs our children of the opportunity to first try on their own.”
When my children are in P1, I always tell then when I hand them their schoolbag and books, ‘This is all yours. Your responsibility. I want you to pay attention in class, finish all your homework and be in charge of all things related to school.’
I don’t micromanage nor help them with the revision of their spelling and 听写 (Chinese for spelling) and they are to revise for their own exams. They also know my stand on tuition — they are to exhaust all possibilities before asking for tuition. I understand that sometimes, certain teachers are inexperienced or teach in a manner they may find hard to understand. Then, they are to ask their friends or siblings and attempt to figure it out — so, getting help from a tutor is the last resort.
However, on seeing my daughter’s performance in the year-end exams, I realised that she might need individualised tuition in the run-up to the PSLE. I made sure to get her thoughts about it because I didn’t want to make the decision without considering her thoughts. I asked if she wasn’t able to learn adequately from her school teachers. If so, I was willing to pay to get additional help in a one-to-one setting.
As the months wore on, she kept getting more and more homework from her school teachers to the point where I felt it was starting to become unhealthy. She would get home from school at 2pm, have lunch, followed by about one-and-a-half to two hours of tuition in a different subject every day. I also informed the tutors not to give her additional homework.
After tuition, she’d plant herself at her desk, demolishing her pile of homework bit by bit and by the time she was done, it was close to 10pm or later.
It was around the third term in school after the June holidays that I started to see changes in her behaviour. School also became more intense and she got really unhappy and stopped smiling as she was feeling burdened by her heavy daily workload. I told her, I felt she was given a ridiculous amount of homework and I gave her permission to stop by bedtime. If any of her teachers were to scold her, she’s to ask them to call me. She said she tried to do so, but got scolded by her teacher and she didn’t want to be the only one to stand out in class.
“I decided it was far more important that my daughter knew it was her we cared about, more than everything else including the PSLE. Her sanity was more important to me than those three digits.”
Eventually, the hours needed to complete copious amounts of homework ate into her bedtime and the lack of sleep was detrimental to her health and happiness. There was also the pressure of all the PSLE chatter from her teachers and friends. They all sang the same tune: “After the PSLE, you can all relax.”
It was a pressurising environment to be in seven hours a day, five days a week. On Fridays, they would have homework to last them the weekend. Goodness, these are 12-year-olds! If we were under that kind of stress for six months, we’ll be depressed as well!
I spoke to her tutors, they told me they were seeing the same downward spiral. She was looking less cheerful, less chatty and not excited and motivated to learn, as compared to the earlier months. I also consulted my husband’s cousin, who tutored all my kids when they’re P6 for certain subjects. Whenever they got tuition, we constantly updated each other, not only about their academic progress but also their attitude and how are they coping. She also supported my decision to pass on tuition for my daughter.
"I decided it was far more important that my daughter knew it was her we cared about, more than everything else including the PSLE. Her sanity was more important to me than those three digits."
I thought long and hard about my decision to pull her out of tuition just three months before the exams. Sure, grades are important because it decides which secondary school she would go to. But, as parents, we won’t know where our child’s breaking point is.
We’ve all heard stories about children committing suicide — it is an unnecessary and painful ordeal. Add to that the increasing number of children getting counselling or psychological help because of depression, anxiety and high stress levels! I decided it was far more important that my daughter knew it was her we cared about, more than everything else including the PSLE. Her sanity was more important to me than those three digits.
After pulling my daughter’s tuition lessons, I left her teachers to prepare her for the exams ― I offered her emotional support by chatting with her. We talked about how she was feeling and about other things in general. It was not just to take her mind off the PSLE, but I also wanted her to understand as with everything in life, we need to have balance. The PSLE shouldn’t overshadow everything else.
In the run up to the PSLE, I made the Herculean effort to wake up every morning at 5am to prepare a wholesome and hearty breakfast fit for a king! Besides the nutritional benefits, it was to show her that I cared, and I was beside her every step of the way.
The weekend before her PSLE, I took her and my youngest child out for a long brunch — they had a lot of fun just being silly with the balloons handed out.
My daughter’s performance in the PSLE was as expected. But what took us by surprise was there were so many students who didn’t fare well, despite being inundated with a ton of homework. Her grades were also comparable to her classmates who’d received tuition for many years. It was obvious that force-feeding them in their studies was not the best strategy.
“As a parent, I’ve decided not to succumb to thinking that I don’t have a choice. I do have a choice.”
I realised I made the right decision to cancel all of my daughter’s tuition classes because I knew I couldn’t stand by and let her get unhappy and convince myself that it was fine and there’s nothing I could do. I would be terribly regretful if she sunk into depression because of an exam.
From this experience with my daughter’s PSLE, I learned that parents have to be vigilant and be in constant communication with the teachers and our own children. So, we understand the whole story and also know when our child will need more support and when to pull back. A healthy partnership between the school and family is crucial during the upper Primary years, where there are many things at stake for students.
I try not to focus too much on academics at home. Our conversations never start with questions about schoolwork, instead, we chat about everything else. You’ll be surprised but your child will tell you about what happened in school, simply because that is a huge part of their day. I’ll also get my children to go to the playground daily — for fresh air, engage their social skills, and to relax after a long day at school. As a parent, I’ve decided not to succumb to thinking that I don’t have a choice. I do have a choice.
For some parents, their greatest fear is the thought of their child not being able to get into a school of their choice. For me, I choose to see everything as a journey and a learning experience. My daughter may have ended up in a different school from her siblings and not in the school of her choice, but the ‘real world’ skills she has picked up aren’t to be scoffed at either. It has changed her perception about many things. It is also not the end of the world ― in fact, she’s motivated to study even harder.”
Michelle Choy, 45, a mummy blogger, has six children — a son and five daughters — aged 7 to 21.
Photos: Michelle Choy.
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